Mindfulness for Families: More than Meditation, a Way to Press Pause amid Busy Lives
by Alexandra DeGeorge, PsyD
Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
Lao-Tzu, "The Tao Te Ching," 6th century BC, as quoted by Jon Kabat-Zinn in "Wherever You Go, There You Are"
"When my little brother broke my favorite game, I wanted to scream and hit him." –Lucy, age 7
"I was so angry when I missed the goal. My teammates tried to cheer me up, but I snapped at them." –Luis, age 13
"I can't stop all the thoughts in my head. They go so fast and sometimes they say bad things, like 'You're going to fail the test.'"—Heather, age 11
"When my friends didn't invite me to hang out with them, I felt so sad until I went up to my room and cut my arm."—Emily, age 15
What is Mindfulness?
"Mindfulness" is a practice based on Eastern philosophy that is becoming increasingly common, cropping up in public school classrooms and the work place as well as in the media. What is it, and how can it help kids and families?
Mindfulness has been incorporated into a number of therapeutic approaches for both adults and children with mental and physical health issues, dialectical behavior therapy being one of them, and studies have proven it to be an effective part of treatment (more on this later). But anyone can practice mindfulness, and anyone may benefit from it. In our often overscheduled lives, it's a way to press "Pause" and take a step back. When we dive back in to our busy days, it may be with new insight, greater awareness, and a fresh perspective. In this way, it helps many people to stop and think before they react.
The term "mindfulness" was pioneered by an American psychotherapist named Jon Kabat-Zinn who wrote the seminal book on the subject, "Wherever You Go, There You Are." Kabat-Zinn took the Eastern practice of meditation, most closely associated with Buddhism, and adapted it to be free of religious philosophy, and thus appropriate for people from all backgrounds.
When people think of mediation, they might picture Buddhist monks in brightly colored robes sitting in a mountain temple somewhere, perfectly still with eyes closed, or possibly chanting. Or perhaps they picture people more like their neighbors, but gathered at a special time and place specifically designated for quiet contemplation.
Kabat-Zinn's book emphasizes that mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, at any moment. It can involve various forms of meditation, and he encourages this. But it can also simply entail a different way of being in the world as we go about our days. At its most basic, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, and being as aware as possible of how we're feeling, both in terms of bodily sensations and emotions, and what's going on around us.
It Takes Practice
There's a reason mindfulness is referred to as a "practice." Anyone who has tried it knows it's a lot harder than it might sound. Human beings have a natural tendency to spend a lot of time not in the present moment. Rather, we spend a lot of time in our heads, thinking about the past or the future--what we're having for dinner, what we're going to do over the weekend, the comment our child's teacher made last week about his behavior in class, or how we could have responded to it better.
Some theories have it that humans evolved with this orientation toward the past and the future because our hunter ancestors were much slower, and their senses less acute, than those of their animal counterparts. In order to hunt successfully, and thus survive, we had to rely on tracking (the past) and predicting (the future) movements of our prey, rather than on sensory perception and speed.
Whatever the reason, the tendency of our minds to wander backward and forward in time is a trait all humans have in common. If you have tried meditation and found your mind wandering, you're far from alone. So what can we do to curb our propensity to drift from the present? Learning more about mindfulness, and beginning to put some simple practices in play in our everyday lives are a good start.
Mindfulness is generally thought to involve three main components:
- Intention: A quality of consciously choosing and directing ourselves to be mindful, or "in the moment."
- Attention: A sustained focus, either on something specific (our breath) or something more broad (being open and receptive to sights and sounds as we walk through a park, or down a busy street).
- Attitude: A nonjudgmental approach to our sensations in the moment; a key part of mindfulness is accepting our sensations and feelings without commenting on them or wanting to change them. Patience, non-judgment, acceptance, trust, non-striving, curiosity, and kindliness have been identified as attitudes that provide a good foundation for mindfulness.
Let's look at how the three components above can be put into practice. By intentionally taking time on a regular basis to focus on the present moment, without judging what happens or what we feel, we may begin to see patterns in our habits, thoughts, perceptions and reactions. We may also begin to see our thoughts and feelings as passing, and not permanent, and gain a new perspective from which we can observe and reflect, rather than reacting to them.
This time can take the form of a formal meditation practice. Seated, walking, and movement meditations are some of the most common, and they can all be done in the home. If you are new to the practice, there are many videos and audio guides available online for free, as well as in libraries and bookstores.
But we can start to practice mindfulness without meditation. It can simply mean taking a break from multi-tasking. Try focusing attention on just one activity, like bathing, eating, working in the garden, or feeling your body in motion as you walk or ride a bike. We may be surprised at what we notice when we keep our attention on what we're doing in the moment.
What are the benefits?
Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to take the concept of mindfulness he helped develop and incorporate it into a course of therapeutic treatment, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Since then, it has been proven to be an effective part of treatment for a variety of conditions, from chronic pain and cancer in adults, to ADHD in initial studies with kids, who have been shown to be more attentive and less impulsive and hyperactive.
All the research studies conducted thus far included meditation practices lead by a trained professional. If your child has a mental health disorder, ask your caregiver whether mindfulness-based therapies could form an effective part of his or her treatment. If you're interested in reading more about recent research, see the "Sources" and "Resources" sections at the bottom of this article.
As mentioned earlier, mindfulness training is not just for those undergoing treatment for mental or physical illness. Many schools have incorporated mindfulness teachings into their curricula, and anecdotal evidence from school professionals says that it reaps rewards in educational as well as therapeutic settings. Teachers and principals report kids who are more focused and ready to learn, and less reactive to stress and to their peers. (NY Times, Greater Good).
It follows that all families may benefit from working some simple, mindfulness based techniques and practices into their daily routines.
What parents can do: Mindfulness at home
Here are a few simple forms of mindfulness practice you can try with your kids.
Lie on your backs with a stuffed animal or pillow on your bellies. Focus on your breathing for a minute or two. Remember, you don't need to change your breathing—just observe the breath as it occurs naturally. The animal or pillow will help you be aware of the rise and fall. When it's time to stop, take a moment to check in with your child and talk about how you both felt before and after. If your mind starts to wander (and inevitably it will!), try to be aware of it and bring yourself back to the focus on your breathing.
Find a place to sit with your child for a few minutes. It could be a public or private space, indoors or outside. Ask your child to focus on what she hears in the surrounding area and explain you'll do the same. You can close your eyes or keep them open, depending on what's most comfortable, but try to pay attention to sounds. After a minute or so, talk about what you heard. What stands out most? How did various sounds make you feel (calm, happy, annoyed, scared?). Did they bring up memories or associations? Remember not to judge. There are no right or wrong answers.
Practice following an itch. Sit or lie down, and take a moment to bring your attention to an itch anywhere on your body, but don't scratch it. Attend to the sensation; does it wax and wane in intensity? Does it go away? Try to stay focused on it. Also be aware of judgments; if there is no itch, don't judge yourself, simply scan your body and make note of that.
When driving or walking home one day, try to make it a mindful practice. Don't call a friend or family member, or even listen to music. Simply notice what is in front of you (or around you) and describe what you see. Take note of when and how long your mind wanders and attempt to keep bringing your focus back each time this happens for the duration of the walk or ride home. You can prompt your child or teen to do the same, either with you, or on their own.
When you see your child doing three things at once—doing homework, listening to music, and instant messaging with friends, for instance—remind him to take a moment and focus on one thing at a time. This could mean just closing his eyes and really listening to the song he's playing on his headphones; stopping to actually call his friend and spend five minutes chatting about how they are, giving the conversation his full attention; or taking a break to go outside or just sit quietly and focus on his breathing for a minute.
Kabat-Zinn cautions his readers not to expect instant results from mindfulness practice. It's not a magic cure-all for worry, stress, or anything else. If you do it with a specific goal, you'll likely be disappointed; mindfulness is by definition not a goal-oriented pursuit. With this in mind, all that remains is to try it for yourself and see what happens.
Alexandra DeGeorge, PsyD, is a former clinician at the NYU Child Study Center.
Article originally published August 2011.